Since my decision to pursue a master’s degree at Michigan State University and the subsequent move to Lansing, I’ve spent a lot of time just riding my bike around to get to know the city better. The good news is that there are plenty of bike paths, bike lanes, and aside from nearly being mowed down by a bus yesterday, I’ve had no problems riding my bike in the road. In my trips around Lansing and East Lansing, there’s a few things I’d like to talk about.
First, Lansing is not a terribly economically depressed city like Detroit. It is a blue-collar city; property is cheap and drinks are cheap. On the flip side, Lansing has the benefit of having the State of Michigan’s administrative offices, courts, government, and all of the support services centered in a reasonably small downtown. Second, East Lansing, the home city to Michigan State University, and the majority of the other suburbs, are very well off communities. The suburbs aren’t terribly large, and there are no second ring suburbs leeching the wealth out of the primary ring. Third, the opportunities for Lansing to become what I would consider a more “effective city” in drawing millenials, families, and new economic drivers (aka jobs), are endless.
The above map, which is from Google Maps, shows the parking lots in Downtown Lansing. East of the river is generally not considered downtown, though it contains a significant amount of paved asphalt as well. North of Shiawassee and south of Kalamazoo is also not considered downtown.
One could postulate a few things from this image. First, it must be super easy for tons of people to drive and park in Lansing, which seems to be true. Second, the city and the state do not value building an urban area, and instead have opted to build with suburban density patterns in their own capital. These two statements actually support each other-and it also means that Lansing has quite a small downtown outside of the state and city functions that exist there. For anyone who has been to a state capital such as Madison, WI, you know that capitals can be fun places, vibrant cities, and dense urban environments, even as medium size cities. But to get to a more Madison-like capital and less of a Lansing-like capital, the changes have to come with the density. Density, and a built urban environment, is a hallmark of functional urban planning as we see transportation and energy costs continuing to rise, forcing us to drive less and live closer together.
In all of this, I suggest the prime targets for redevelopment, especially within such a confined downtown area, are the parking lots. As Ellen Dunham-Jones said in a TED talk last January, asphalt near urban areas under-performs. Asphalt is ripe for redevelopment, making Lansing ripe for growth and a truly urban transformation.